The future of the humble (hand written) essay?

Posted: August 16, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Why do we get students to write essays?

It’s always good to reflect on what, how and why we’re assessing. Try asking students in a class (such as English) why they think you are asking them to write an essay. After the avalanche of quips and retorts, consider asking the question again.

Eventually, some sort of consensus will come out; that essays aim to show that a writer is able to answer a question, with a logical progression of ideas, using examples and techniques. Rather than quick fire responses, essays allow the writer to build a more considered response and afford the marker the chance to see what a student is capable of.

Yet, more and more with the changing face of education, students question this type of assessment.

Sir, what relevance is this going to have when we leave school!!” would not be an unfamiliar student observation.

And sometimes it is nice to play to the observation – “Not much…”

Of course, this only piques their interest (or, in more stubborn cases, confirms their disregard for the subject) to which, after a moment’s pause, I look to consider it with them more fully and open it up for some debate…

Of course, I might say, in many ways, you’re right. Think ahead to possible future careers. When, in your life, will you be asked to:

  • write a first draft as your final draft
  • by hand
  • in 40 minutes (with two other sections, just to add to the lovely muscle-feeling your hand now displays)
  • without being able to consult another person, a set of notes or (gasp) the internet
  • on a range of texts, techniques and critics

And the answer is, I would hope, never. I’ll throw the following back to their side of the court to consider. Why not, allow students to type their responses on a computer (with, if you are feeling draconian, spell-check and the like disabled), with a larger window of time, to facilitate some basic editing to occur? This would allow us to build the word count, if nothing else – on the basis that students could type much faster than they could write by hand. Could there be a range of sources that could be brought in for consideration and possible inclusion? What about collaborative efforts? My wife is currently studying for an MBA, where much of the work is group orientated and subsequent efforts assessed.

A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library
Accession Number: 15/5/3090.00830

So, it is interesting then in 2012, to consider why the essay response, an item that probably dates back to the 19th Century, still holds such a significant place in final testing? As changes in ICT occur, I feel this will probably warrant ongoing scrutiny. I did enjoy the introduction of the current HSC system in NSW, which looked to connect texts to real-world events and situations (seen in the Area of Study- from Change, through to Journeys and on to Belonging), but it seems like (giving a nod to old debating training) it might be time, to revamp the method and manner in which students are able to respond (rather than the matter).

With the roll out of lightweight consumption devices such as iPads and laptops and the like at schools across the globe, I wonder how long before students will be able to respond ‘electronically’? Are we within a school generation that would see the younger students able to use these devices in final exams before they graduate? Not that I am suggesting that the iPad is the way to go – it certainly has its limitations and, being a touch-typist myself, I’m not sure a semi-SMS-tapped-out-essay on the virtual keyboard is the way to go. I use a wireless keyboard when I need to do more than a few lines, but we still have some way to go before all this is seamless. And then it will need to be available to all students at all schools, without any nagging tech concerns of batteries, lost data or being unable to save or upload.
So, for the time being, the status quo remains. And so, I usually end by telling the students that the final exams are a kind of game. Not one that tests what your full capabilities are, but one that asks you to put your skills to a 40 minute test and how well you can play under those rules. I still like essays and what they can offer.
But how close are we to seeing this all change?

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